The modern trend in the NHL is to stick fairly strictly to left-right shot defensive pairings. This allows defensemen to transition the puck from their own zone more safely, allows for quicker d to d passes, and easier keep ins and low-to-high pass receptions in the offensive zone with the players stick along the boards so pucks can be stopped on the player’s forehand. I may be missing other reasons for this as well. Despite the relatively recent (last decade or so) emphasis on the handedness of defenseman, this strategy has not carried to the forward group. Plenty of forwards throughout the league play on their off wing, and while the majority of players in the NHL are left shots, 60-70% depending on the season, it’s still not uncommon for righties to play at LW (Ovechkin, Panarin, and Kovalchuk come to mind). So we know that coaches don’t seem to care about the handedness of forwards nearly as much as they do defensemen, but it does seem odd that the Devils have zero righties at RW, and only two right-handed forwards, McLeod and Mercer, both of whom play center. So my question is, does this matter?
This is honestly a question I have no idea how to answer. There would seem to be some obvious advantages. More quickly and accurately receiving and sending lateral pass on your forehand, being able to protect your the puck on your stick from a defender when driving towards the net down the wing, being able to quickly release a shot off off of a pass, the ability to defend stick-on-stick in the offensive zone, to name a few. But we’re talking about elite athletes in the new age NHL, where even a fourth liner can stickhandle and move the puck at a high level. So maybe they are capable of compensating for most of these deficits well enough for it to make little difference? From the highlights of Saturday’s game against the Sabres we see that at the 2:54 mark of the video, Hischier has no issue receiving a hard pass on his backhand without difficulty, then gain the zone and create a grade A scoring chance with a pass right to the slot for Tatar. Three minutes later, at the 5:54 mark, we see Hischier set up Tatar for a nice zone entry, and he’s able to get by a defender with the puck on his back hand and drive the net for a scoring chance. However, he goes to put the puck on his forehand for a better shot and the defender is able to get a stick in a lane to disrupt the shot. Tatar could’ve taken a backhander instead of moving the puck to his forehand, but a right shot wouldn’t have needed to, they could’ve taken a shot without difficulty, albeit from a less dangerous location, from just outside the right face-off circle.
The one area of the game I wonder about is on the power play, where right-shot forwards are often coveted. Much of this is because it’s a heck of a lot easier to take a one-timer when your stick is on the inside, closer to the middle of the ice. We see this in action with the one-timer from the left circle, the “Ovi spot”, if you will, where us Devils fans also saw Kyle Palmieri have some success in recent seasons. Often the role of the bumper player is another spot where a right shot is preferred. This allows for quick puck movement from behind behind the net leading to either a shot or another play to be made from the slot. In this goal from the 2012 playoffs, notice how this play is impossible if Clarkson isn’t a righty. He’s able to quickly receive Henrique’s pass, move the puck down to Zubrus, who snaps a pass to Kovalchuk for a one-timer.
Now, this may not be a huge concern for the Devils. They may feel that whatever power-play scheme they use doesn’t necessitate a right shot in either the left circle or the bumper spot. Another scheme may be just as effective without having a righty. Or they may choose to make use of Dawson Mercer’s quick release in one of these places. He certainly seems skilled enough to not be a liability on a power play.
If the Devils lack of righties is an issue I can’t think of a good way to test this idea. Maybe someone else has an idea of how to do so but IMO there are simply too many other variables at play to isolate whether handedness itself has a significant impact without having some measure of control over the actual roster. This is something to keep an eye on, however, because if nothing else it does make the roster less versatile. The good news is that the Devils do not lack right-shot forwards in the system, so if this is an issue, it is one we may see corrected in the coming seasons. In addition to star prospect Alex Holtz, whom I suspect is on everyone’s radar, Graeme Clarke, Tyce Thompson are future candidates from the AHL to fill this role and, to a lesser extent, so is Fabian Zetterlund. In the immediate future though, if Holtz continues to score goals in Utica we may soon see an answer to the dearth of right-shot RWs.
Conclusion and Your thoughts
In today’s blog I wasn’t attempting to come to any real conclusions because I honestly have no idea whether this matters or not. It is something I noticed just prior to training camp and at the time I was curious if it would impact who made the roster. Ultimately, I suspect it is like face-offs, where it is important is specific situations, but the overall impact on the game is minimal. But what are your thoughts? Is the Devils lack of righties a roster construction issue or just a quirk of the lineup? Do you have any ideas about how to measure the impact of a lack of right-shot forwards on team performance? Should the Devils actively try to add more righties to the lineup? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!